I first heard about the “Hero’s Journey” back in the early 1970s. A colleague of mine, Paddy Walley, mentioned it in passing around the time that I was recruited as a Training Specialist in N.E.T., the fertiliser plant in Arklow. I didn’t know much then about the “Hero’s Journey” other than that occasional references to it appeared in the media dealing with training and organisation development issues. About the same time, I was encouraged by an Irish consultant, a behavioural scientist, the late Pat Quinn, who was working with the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations, based in the U.K., to attend their annual Leicester Working Conference.
This “conference” was unlike anything I had ever experienced up to then. It was (and still is!) an experiential learning event. Unlike most conferences, where there is a lot of socialising and networking contacts, a lot of talks by panels of experts, and a “jolly good time” is had by all, financed usually by the sponsoring employers (think: scaled-down Davos and a rite of passage for aspiring executives), the Working Conference is an intense learning experience driven by the participants themselves, both consciously as a result of their desire to learn, but also unconsciously by their subliminal needs and desires and personal make-up.
A Working Conference as an experiential event is certainly different. There you learn from your own direct experience of interacting with others in the “here-and-now” as you work with them in an emerging organisational structure and struggle to understand what it’s all about. At one level, you are thinking about the work you are trying to do from scratch, while at the same time, you are being encouraged to examine the process in which the group is engaged, communicating, thinking, doing, arguing, agreeing, visualising. That is, you are dealing with the what and the how of the Task but at the same time, struggling to understand the emerging dynamic of the Process of working together.
The conference consultants focus on analysing what the various groups and sub-groups are doing and interject from time to time with their hypotheses about what is happening in the group, as-a-group. They rarely if ever interact with individuals in the group, because their focus is the group as a group, as if it were a separate “animal” and the individuals merely different, but intrinsic, aspects of that “animal”. The focus is on the dynamic way in which the Task and the Process interact, on how that interaction affects and is affected by the individuals in the group, at the level of both conscious and unconscious awareness, thinking, and behaviour.
The group consultant’s only information is what they see and hear and sense around them. From that they develop a working hypothesis as to what might be going on in the psyches of the group members. It is impossible to describe the effect this has on each participant. Suffice it to say that on the morning of the second day (the conference lasted for a fortnight), I spent almost an hour before breakfast, on my knees, in the toilet bringing up what felt like everything I had ever eaten in my life. By the end of the fortnight, I was aware that the world had changed for me and that I had choices to make. In many ways a Working Conference is another example of the Hero’s Journey in a limited time frame. My career took a radically different direction from then on. I would now in retrospect describe my life as surfing from one wave to the next, even from one Working Conference to another, caught up like a small canoe negotiating dangerous but exciting rapids. I have also attended three further working conferences and trained as a group relations consultant with the Tavistock Institute.
I mention all the above, because over the past few years since 2002, when I returned to Ireland, I have been struggling to cope with the consequences, some good, some bad, others yet to be evaluated, of my life in general. But I have learned how to look at these these situations in a more useful way, and most importantly, to accept life as it is rather than wish it were different. As part of this developing scenario, the name of Joseph Campbell arose again and again. He was the originator of the “Hero’s Journey”! In this, his work is invaluable if you struggle at times to make sense of what is happening to you in your own life. The diagram below is just one of many different examples of how the different stages of the Hero’s Journey may occur.
Joseph Campbell was born in White Plains, New York, the son of Josephine (née Lynch) and Charles William Campbell. He was from an upper-middle-class Irish Catholic family. He was a scholar and was strongly influenced by the work of James Joyce. His book, “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”, gives a good overview of his ideas. His work has influenced many modern writers and film-makers, such as George Lucas and “Star Wars”, “The Matrix”, the Harry Potter series, and many others. The popularity of those films and others like them, including folk tales, mythology, and fairy tales, is in large measure due to those stories being built upon a simple framework that we instinctively recognise and respond to as being rooted in our shared human nature.
Today I came upon the film “The Timeless Tale of the Hero’s Journey”. [NOTE: This link will take you to a YouTube video summarising the Hero’s Journey and that is then followed by a one-hour film expanding on the first video and pointing out the implications of the myth]. I have no regrets that it has taken so many years for my life to come full circle since then, with many repeated cycles of the Journey, from Paddy Walley’s reference to it nearly fifty years ago right up to now. You will always find the Hero’s Journey relevant to your search for meaning in your life, as well as helping you to recognise the “Here be Dragons!” sign.
The key point for anyone watching this film is to remember that this is not about a pantheon of heroes to be admired from a distance. Every human being since the dawn of our history is unique. We live in a gigantic, multi-dimensional, mind-boggling, cosmic arena that we still struggle to understand, so there is still plenty of room for your and my and his and her uniqueness to emerge and flourish. Remember that each one of us will, at some stage or another or even at many different stages in our life, come to a door or a path or a life option that is closed to us. We have the choice to turn away or to open that door, to travel that path, to make that choice. You don’t have to be famous, or fantastically clever or skilled or wealthy see your life as your Hero’s Journey.
Watch this film and you will understand why!